For reconciliation between old foes, Japanese leaders must say sorry

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 July, 2015, 12:37am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 July, 2015, 12:37am

The Japanese know how to say sorry when they feel the need. With the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war a month away, the Mitsubishi Corporation apologised to Americans who were captured by Japan's army and forced to work in its copper mines. Only two of the US former prisoners are known to be still alive and just one was healthy enough to attend the ceremony at the weekend, but the long-sought announcement was considered sufficiently sincere and humble for the past to be put behind. If only Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could do the same for the Chinese and Koreans who suffered so greatly at the hands of imperial soldiers during the years of invasion and occupation.

Japan's government apologised to the survivors five years ago. Other firms are expected to follow Mitsubishi's lead. The Japanese have yet to apologise to the Chinese, Koreans and Filipinos also forced into slave labour. How far firms, and Abe with a statement marking Japan's surrender on August 15, are willing to go remains uncertain. The sincerity of the prime minister's remarks could well affect a planned trip to China. He has been invited to the war anniversary commemoration in Beijing on September 3, an event he may see in terms of humiliation but is in fact about reconciliation. It is in part a show of strength, although also a reminder that such a tragedy has to be avoided and never repeated. Being present will afford an opportunity to personally express to President Xi Jinping and other leaders of Asian countries against which Japan committed atrocities the apology that is preventing the region from putting the past behind.

Abe has yet to respond to the invitation and it would seem unlikely he would take it up; he has too many nationalist, right-wing tendencies. He is instead believed to be looking to visit on dates either side of the commemoration, a position German Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel took with Russia's celebrations in May of the defeat of Nazi Germany. But the way Japan and Germany have handled their wartime history is markedly different. Whereas German politicians have apologised and repeatedly shown and expressed their heartfelt remorse, those from Japan have tried to distort history and ignore their obligations to neighbours.

Reconciliation requires a desire to make amends. Sincerity is shown through words and deeds, and so far for Abe and his protégés, both have been lacking. The anniversary of the end of the war is an ideal opportunity to turn a fresh page.